Reversal Symbolism

Patterns of reversal abound in Gospel symbolism. Within this category we might recognize two primary related but not identical types: things representing the giving-way of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant and things representing the replacement of patterns of corruption with patterns of Glory. These two binary formulations of course play off each other and are both expressions of the underlying, more general reversal of that which must decrease set against that which must increase (think John 3:30 where the Forerunner says, “He [Jesus] must become greater; I must become less”). Correspondingly, they're both often found working simultaneously in the same set of symbols. For instance, the fig tree Jesus curses is set against that undying tree which grows from the smallest of seeds but brings about the Kingdom of Heaven. In the withering fig tree we can see both the receding of the Old Covenant and an image of death itself. In the tree representing the Kingdom of Heaven we see both the fruits of the New Covenant and the vanquishing of death.

Not Twofold, but Threefold

While often, like in the example above, both types of reversal are seamlessly wrapped together in the same symbolism, other times they're more differentiated. Interestingly, when this differentiation occurs, it’s not twofold, but subtly threefold. Subtly that is, except for in one particular case—namely that of the three Marys, where the threefold pattern is arguably on full display. That there are three Marys is a conspicuous detail, the fact of which can be taken as an interesting coincidence but to the symbolic mind seems to point very strongly toward something deeply significant.1 This intuition is bolstered by the presence of these three at the Crucifixion in the Gospel of John and further by the abundant representations of this imagery in art and iconography. Once one gains an understanding of the pattern the three Marys seem to exemplify, it quickly becomes a key to unlocking the same pattern elsewhere in the Gospels, particularly in certain passages whose symbolism can otherwise be difficult to decipher. The significance of the three Marys then becomes even more strongly felt.

Let us begin our exploration with a brief reminder of who the three Marys are. Many will know that there is some ambiguity in their identification, and that there are in fact even more than three named.2 The different Gospels give slightly different accounts as to which Marys were present during certain events, but in most tellings of crucial events like the Crucifixion and burial, they usually appear as three in number. The complications involved in tracing the identity of all the Marys are outside the scope of the present study, so I’ll focus solely on the group present at the Crucifixion according to the Gospel of John, in which the symbolic potency of all three together is most clear and pronounced. In this depiction we have Mary the Mother of God, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. In order to see the symbolic pattern these three represent, it’s perhaps easiest to review these figures beginning with the Mary who is most likely the least familiar, namely Mary of Clopas.

Mary of Clopas

Who is Mary of Clopas? Her precise identity is difficult to establish, but the main hint we need comes from St. John’s gospel, where she is identified in relation to Jesus as simply “his mother’s sister” (John 19:25). What is the symbolic significance of a sister to the Virgin Mother of God, and moreover a sister with the same name? The sister of the Virgin who conceived the Lord by the Holy Spirit is she who must decrease in order to make way for she who must increase. John tells us in the very first chapter of his gospel, “[T]o those who did accept him [Jesus] he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God” (John 1:13). In Christ, relationships of natural generation are replaced by God’s supernatural relationship with all peoples. Abraham’s bloodline, which led to Jesus, is superseded by the blood of Christ. Mary of Clopas, therefore, as a kind of final representative of that bloodline, and of natural generation in general, serves a similar (albeit less exalted) role as John the Baptist, in passing the baton from the Old Covenant to the New.

The etymology of Clopas’s name is also telling. Thought to derive from the Hebrew word chalaph, meaning “to traverse” or “to exchange,”3 the motion and mutability associated with her function here is further emphasized. Digging a little deeper, a link to the Sabbath as the seventh day, or intervening day between the sixth and eighth days of Creation, suggests itself. We know the Sabbath as the day the Lord rested from his works; but we can further understand this rest as an intermediary step circumscribing the completion of all things natural in preparation for their eventual deification. In his Chapters on Knowledge, St. Maximus the Confessor tells us: “According to Scripture, the sixth day brings in the completion of beings subject to nature.”4 At the level of the individual, the sixth day is the day for the accomplishment of “appropriate works and thoughts”5—the development of virtues and subjugation of the passions. One who has brought these works to an end “has crossed by comprehension all the ground of what is subject to nature” and therefore moves into the seventh day: the arena for the mystical contemplation of ineffable knowledge.6 We see this passing of the natural into the mystical, or supernatural, mirrored in the transition from the Law to the Gospel, where the grace hidden in the letter of the Old Testament is made vibrantly “active by the Spirit.”7 All these different ways of conceptualizing the seventh day are simultaneously embodied in the figure of Mary of Clopas.

Mary Magdalene

Moving now to Mary Magdalene. Having drawn the connection between Mary of Clopas and the seventh day, we’re naturally led to suspect that Magdalene will fall somewhere within that same scheme. To see how this plays out, let’s first build up a profile of her from some basic facts.

We know from several details that she occupies an extremely important position in the narrative of Christ. All four Gospels testify to her presence at the Crucifixion and at the tomb, and in Matthew, Mark, and John, she is either among the first to encounter the risen Christ, or the first mentioned to encounter him.8 We must ask, what is the significance of her closeness to Jesus? Well, we hear in both Luke and Mark that Jesus had cleansed her of seven demons.9 With this detail her pattern comes into view. Mary Magdalene can be understood to represent the fallen world in its entirety. The number seven, in addition to being the link between days six and eight of the cosmic arc, is of course a symbol of the original completeness of Creation. Mary Magdalene’s seven demons then symbolize all of Creation despoiled by sin. That Jesus rids her of these demons before appearing to her in his Resurrection body indicates the necessary step of purifying Creation—restoring it to its original innocence—before it can be glorified.

Her being the first-mentioned witness to the risen Christ underscores her function as a symbol of all Creation. In this moment, she is the world now turned toward the fulfillment of the Age to Come. Ecstatic at the sight of her companion brought back from the dead, she yearningly calls out to him, “Teacher!” But Jesus replies, “Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). Mary obeys, and runs to announce to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (20:18). In this remarkable exchange, Mary Magdalene reverses Eve’s sin. That event which sparked the downfall of humanity, in which the mother of the living prematurely grabbed after knowledge,10 is made right by Mary Magdalene’s obedience and exercising of chaste self control. Jesus tells her not to grab after him, and she listens, thus setting the example for all of mankind. Before moving toward the higher knowledge of the seventh day, one must attain to the full accomplishment of the sixth, with passions and sins of the flesh quelled and the detachment of virtue developed in their place. It’s as if Magdalene’s seven demons had set her back a day in the cosmic scheme to day six. The space reserved for the spiritual had been filled by the demonic, and so now being cleansed of these elements, the purely natural prelapsarian condition is restored and set on course toward reception in grace of the good things to come.

Mary Mother of God

With the previous two Marys exhausting the two primary types of reversal—Mary of Clopas embodying the exchange of the Old Covenant for the New and Mary Magdalene living out the vanquishing of patterns of corruption—it might now be evident why I’ve chosen to save the most important Mary for last. The two other Marys, as the sixth and seventh days, can also be taken to represent purification and illumination. These two stages belong to the triad which culminates in perfection, or the eighth day. Whereas purification and illumination both still belong to the relative and the finite, perfection is the final ineffable state outside nature and time. This is the abode of the transcendent ever-present reality that stands over and above all temporal unfolding, permeating the world from within. This is the ultimate abode of the Virgin Mary Mother of God, the New Eve and perfected Creation through whom Christ receives his human nature. “More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,”11 the Holy Queen sits beside the ascended Christ in Heaven.

The Most Pure is on her own the fullness of creaturely existence, while the other two Marys show hierarchically differentiated aspects of Christ’s relationship to the created, within the limited domain of the temporal. The reversing, exchanging property of Magdalene and Clopas, which indicates a ‘movement toward,’ is brought to rest in the eighth-day perfection of the Virgin Mother.12 Her perfection contains and transcends the potency of the two subordinate creaturely modes. For her no reversal or exchange is any longer operative, for they are fulfilled and subsumed in her. As the Holy Virgin she is ever-pure, with the sensible and fleshly kept in constant subordination to the Spirit. As the God-bearer she is directly illumined, with the letter of the Law subordinated to the living Word within her.

The Threefold Pattern in Other Gospel Events

Having established the hierarchical relationship of the three Marys as the triad of purification, illumination, and perfection, you might be wondering why I chose to present this pattern out of order, starting with Mary of Clopas. The answer to this ties back to the subtle threefoldness I referred to earlier and will become more apparent after reviewing a few examples of the pattern in other Gospel events, in which the order is the one I’ve presented here. We’ll start with the wedding at Cana.13

The Wedding at Cana

In this story, Jesus, his mother Mary, and the disciples are at a wedding. Mary (called simply the “mother of Jesus” by St. John) alerts Jesus that the wine has run short. Jesus then instructs the servers to fill six basins with water and to take them to the headwaiter. Upon receiving the basins and tasting that the water has been turned to wine, the headwaiter calls to the bridegroom saying, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). Considering these images in light of our symbolic triad, we can firstly recognize the “old wine,” which has run short, set against the “new wine” that Jesus miraculously produces. Here we can clearly see the pattern of the Old Covenant giving way to the New; the old wine is the Abrahamic bloodline of natural generation and the new wine is the blood of Christ. This fits the pattern of Mary of Clopas as illumination.

Some extra symbolic processing is required to see the Magdalene pattern in effect in the wedding at Cana, but we do indeed find it. Remembering that of the three Marys, Mary Magdalene was the one who symbolized the reversal of corruption through purification, we recall that she was first cleansed of her seven demons before witnessing the resurrected Jesus. A similar cleansing takes place here at the wedding. There are six empty ritual washing jars that Jesus orders to be filled with water. You’ll remember from earlier the association of the sixth day with purification and with the natural order, and additionally how the fall “kicked Creation back a day,” so to speak, from seven to six. Another way to look at the number six is as the ‘number of man’ or things according to man, operating in the absence of a total connection with God and his completeness. So the six empty jars are the fallen creaturely world, disconnected from God as a result of sin and, as it were, unfilled by Spirit. These jars then become filled by purifying water, which is turned to wine and thus imbued with Spirit, calling to mind the line in the following chapter where Jesus says to Nicodemus, “[N]o one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5).

The third symbolic element at the wedding of Cana, the one representing the transcendent reality of perfection, is of course Jesus and Mary themselves. Sitting together at a wedding and symbolically demonstrating the above-described reversals, the eschatological reality of the Church wedded to Christ in the final fulfillment of all things can be seen sculpting the events of the immanent realm of temporal becoming, foreshadowing things to come.  

Feeding the Multitude

Again the same triadic pattern can be used to interpret Jesus’s feeding of the multitude, specifically when the two separate instances of this miracle are taken together.14 In the feeding of the 5,000, the five loaves Jesus multiplies and has the disciples distribute leave twelve leftover baskets. In the feeding of the 4,000, seven loaves leave seven leftover baskets. Here we find another clear example of the Old Covenant versus the New, namely in the type of nourishment involved in each. The five loaves are the old manna from heaven, the Word of God as Pentateuch (five books of Moses). The twelve leftover baskets are the tribes of Israel, to whom that nourishment was dispersed. This nourishment is now to be replaced, or rather illumined, by the Word made flesh.

Here the corruption-redeeming reversal also has to do with the type of nourishment: bread (there are fish involved here too, but I won’t get into that). Bread is a manmade product, created by the sweat of man's brow and born of the curse of the fall.15 In the feeding of the multitude, the taint of that very bread is seen to be removed, and the bread of course becomes the body of Christ, bestowed upon mankind by the grace of God. We see a pattern here very similar to Mary Magdalene’s. The seven loaves conceived by toil, representing fallen Creation, are purified and re-delivered to mankind as a mystical gift, thus restoring Creation (the seven baskets left over).

At the center of all this stands Christ himself, the transcendent reality operating on and in history.

The Infinite in the Limited

In both the above examples, the pattern is presented in the order of Clopas to Magdalene, or illumination to purification. In the wedding at Cana, before the jars are filled with water and turned to wine, first the old wine is mentioned as having run short. In the two feedings of the multitude, the old nourishment is administered before the redeeming nourishment. If the pattern goes purification, illumination, perfection, then why the flip? We can turn once again to St. Maximus, who tells us that “The grace of the New Testament is mysteriously hidden in the Old.”16 This means that in the time of the Old Covenant, although the world had fallen, God was still present to the people of Israel, to whom he had revealed the Law. Thus a kind of partial illumination existed atop the corrupted foundation. But in restoring Creation in its fullness, Christ descends to the very bottom, passing through the partially illumined layer all the way to the depths. This is why purification is presented second. The partially illumined layer has to be rolled back to expose the decay underneath. But conversely, those things which are the lowest and deepest end up being closest to the Cross, since they are the base level of reality which must be redeemed first. “The last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:16). This is perhaps why Mary Magdalene is presented first in the Gospel of John both at the empty tomb and in Christ’s appearances after the Resurrection, which take place on the eighth day.  

The mysterious criss-crossing in the order of purification and illumination, or the sixth and seventh days, makes sense in the light of the eighth day and additionally sheds light on that subtle threefoldness I’ve been continually alluding to. Christ himself is the third component in the otherwise twofold reversal pattern. He is the transcendent reality come down into history, God as a living human being, situated in the center of the reversals as both cause and telos. As both beginning and end, high and low are united in him and flow in both directions, from him and toward him. Hence the criss-crossing. That Christ is the "missing third" symbolic element which might escape our notice is a consequence of the fact that he is the center of the story and often the one presenting the symbolic imagery, through parables or miracles.

It makes sense then why the three Marys are so explicitly threefold. Christ as the Son of God is the uncreated, informing element and the Marys (above all the Virgin, beyond compare) are the created, receiving element, which is feminine relative to God. The uncreated Logos stands above and acts upon and within the created. Therefore, the three Marys are, as previously stated, three differentiated modalities of creaturely-receptive relationship to the divine: purified (Magdalene), illumined (Clopas), and perfected (Blessed Virgin). They are three staged and nested vantage points at which the Savior stands in relation to the world. Hence in St. John’s depiction they appear fully differentiated and in order on Golgotha, the fulcrum of all cosmic unfolding.

It’s sometimes said that “God creates from the Cross.” In a phrase like this, one gets the image of the event on Golgotha fractally woven into the fabric of the world. In the symbolic interpretation of the three Marys laid out here, the three women with the same name all gathered at the Crucifixion are seen to be that very world itself. It’s no surprise then that their pattern turns up over and over again in the Gospels, clothed anew in different symbolic imagery in the stories and events which ripple forward and backward from the Cross like temporal reflections. In all these separate accounts, we see one thread running through: the Incarnation passing through all things, and the limited, temporal Creation drawn upward from glory to glory by the infinite ever-present.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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1. It is often remarked that the name Mary was among the most popular names for Jewish women in the first century. See for example: Ehrman, Bart D. “Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene,” Oxford University Press, 2006, at 188.

2. The complete list of those Marys named in the Crucifixion and Resurrection narratives is: Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Jacob, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Salome.

3. Audlin, James David. “On the Family of Jesus,” in “The Gospel of John: The Original Version Restored & Translated with Commentaries – Volume One: The Text and an Early History of the Text,” at 406. Volcán Barú, 2014.

4. Maximus the Confessor. “Chapters on Knowledge,” in “Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings,” Trans. George C. Berthold, at 137. Paulist Press, 1985.

5. Ibid., at 137.

6. Ibid., at 138.

7. Ibid., at 145.

8. She is the first mentioned in John 20:11-18.

9. Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2.

10. See Gen. 3:1-7.

11. From the Orthodox hymn “It is Truly Meet” (Axion Estin).

12. St. Maximus associates this eighth-day “ever-moving rest” with the third element of his triad: being, well-being, and eternal being. For an in-depth discussion of this, see: Loudovikos, Nikolaos. “A Eucharistic Ontology: Maximus the Confessor’s Eschatological Ontology of Being as Dialogical Reciprocity,” at 76-84. Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2010.

13. See John 2:1-12.

14. Jesus directly comments on the symbolism of the two accounts in his discourse on the leaven of the Pharisees (Mark 8:14-21).

15. See Gen. 3:17.

16. Maximus the Confessor, “Chapters,” at 145.

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